Written by: 
Erin Cristales

"Get up."

Somewhere, buried deep within the fog, Dennis Lee (’86) heard his mother’s voice. The faint but familiar sound conjured memories of his youth, of lying in bed long past the alarm until her words floated beyond the door and shook loose the last vestiges of sleep.

This time, though, the words seemed different — imbued with a disquieting sadness that suggested she wasn’t sure there would be any waking up. The doctors didn’t seem certain either. 

But more than anyone, Nora Lee recognized her son’s resolve. Through the years, she’d watched him transform from a skinny little boy who bemoaned his outsider status into an adult who made every kid feel like they belonged. As the ventriloquist behind the beloved Nana Puddin’ puppet, Lee had spent his career extolling the importance of love, acceptance and faith — encouraging children and adults to cling tight to those ideals, even in the most trying of circumstances.

And now he found himself needing to heed his own words of wisdom. Just hours before, he had undergone major surgery following a catastrophic car wreck that nearly destroyed the left side of his body, leaving him with crushed bones, and severe back and neck injuries. Though the pain would be unbearable, and the recovery grueling, Lee was the kind of good Southern boy who knew better than to defy his momma.

He opened his eyes.

Lessons learned, and words reconsidered

“‘Get up’ became one of those phrases that just stuck in my head,” Lee says. It’s been two years since the accident, and the mantra has helped him persevere through plenty: months of rehabilitation, a hip replacement surgery, the death of his mother.

Dennis Lee's crushed car
Dennis Lee's Ford Expedition was crushed in the accident after colliding with two semi-trailers.

News of Lee’s accident spread quickly, how the famed puppeteer had fallen asleep at the wheel of his Ford Expedition following a day of performances and collided with two tractor-trailers on the backroads near Navasota. Lee was the only driver injured and was rushed to CHI St. Joseph Health Regional Hospital in Bryan, where he was treated for three broken vertebrae in his neck, a broken sternum, and a shattered pelvis and hip, among other injuries.

Following his life-saving surgery, there was bone-on-bone grinding in his left hip, and his left leg was an inch-and-a-half shorter than his right. After a month in the hospital, the Irving-based Lee moved into his 80-year-old parents’ Denton home, where they cared for him as he dealt with mobility issues that included a brief confinement to a wheelchair.

Lee in a wheelchair
Lee traveled to schools and churches for performances, even while he was still in severe pain from the accident. He credits his fans and his faith with helping him to carry on and get back on his feet.

Soon after, his parents’ garage began to fill with letters of well wishes from fans of all ages — those who had seen Lee perform at their school only recently, and others who had seen him decades before.

“I would not wish what happened to me on anybody,” he says. “But it forced me to allow people to bless me and uplift me and inspire me to get back on my feet.”

He also turned to church for inspiration. Faith had always been central to Lee’s life, but in recent years, he had found himself performing for the congregation more often than simply being part of it. In the months following the accident, he “plugged back into church,” soaking in sermons from the pews. One morning, as Lee sat and listened, the choir performed a mesmerizing special in Swahili. He was enraptured, unconcerned that he didn’t understand the words. And then the minister provided the translation: Get up.

“I started bawling,” Lee says. “I thought the message of ‘get up’ I’d been hearing was, ‘Dennis, you have a job to do, get back to those 450 shows per year.’ But that wasn’t it at all. It was get up and dance. Get up and celebrate. Get up and spend more time with your parents, your sister, your children, your grandchildren. That’s a message I’m still trying to embrace and help others embrace. Life is not always easy, it’s not always pain-free. But you have to get up and put on your dancing shoes, even if you can’t dance the way you used to. Celebrate the life you’ve been given.”

Embracing a beloved career path

Lee is the first to admit he’s been handed a pretty good life. He grew up in Carrollton, the son of Lyndon and Nora Lee, who from an early age preached a message of acceptance. Lyndon, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., ensured that the values of peace, love and tolerance he and his wife embraced were passed down to their children. His parents’ beliefs particularly resonated after Lee’s younger sister, Lisa, was born with cerebral palsy, a disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture caused by damage that occurs to the developing brain.

“Having a dad who was not going to let us develop attitudes or ideas that were not inclusive of all people, and having a mom who was tough and strong and said, ‘We have a handicapped daughter, you have a handicapped sister — we have to open our eyes,’ that definitely gave me empathy and compassion for people,” Lee says.

Lee and his sister Lisa
Lee and his sister Lisa, who has cerebral palsy, have always been close. He says she gave him some much-needed perspective following his accident.

But he never quite felt like he stood out, sandwiched between a smart, athletic older brother and a younger sister with special needs. His mom encouraged him to embrace his differences and focus on his love of puppetry, which was sparked by watching Edgar Bergen on television and listening to his records. When Lee was 10, his mom taught him ventriloquism, and as a pre-teen, he won first place for his routine at the Carrollton County Fair.

“My dad said I never needed any encouragement after that,” Lee says, “which was probably true.”

He decided to enroll at North Texas and study piano. But his dad recognized his gift for ventriloquism and encouraged him to continue down that path.

“He used to say, ‘Musicians are great, but how many musicians can sing without moving their mouth?’ says Lee, who ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree in communication studies. “After North Texas, I realized my heart is a teacher’s heart, and working with children is the way I think and process things.”

Lee developed dozens of characters for his shows, like Baby Mickee (aka Nana Puddin’), a sweet, and often sassy, monkey; Mickee’s older brother, Nick, a silver-tongued gorilla; Too Tall Jamal, a music-loving giraffe; and Grizzwold, a troll who does not, under any circumstances, want his rainbow-colored hair touched. For 36 years, he traveled throughout the country, performing for students and teachers while also writing, producing and performing episodes for The Family Network, writing and illustrating five children’s books, and writing and producing more than 50 DVDs, 13 CDs and 300 original songs and lyrics.

That’s partly how he ended up on that Navasota backroad, “emotionally, physically and spiritually exhausted,” and what brought him to tears in that church pew. There was no question that he would keep going after his accident — his desire to “make the world a better place through laughter and learning and love” had only intensified, not subsided — but this time, he would scale back his performances to no more than 250 each year.

And he would turn the remnants of his hospital-based boredom into the springboard for his current show.

Bringing the color

As he attempted to power through his time in the hospital, Lee wasn’t sure he would ever heal enough to return to the stage. His dad responded by bringing him markers.

“If you can’t perform for the kids, you can draw for them,” the elder Lee told him.

Jungle Jam drawing
One of the black-and-white drawings Lee made while in the hospital is now a backdrop for his new show, "The Great Jungle Jam."

So he made black-and-white sketches of jungle animals, etchings of hippos and tigers and monkeys that danced happily along the pages. After he recovered enough to resume performing, Lee’s manager, Tony Britt, suggested he transform the drawings into the backdrop for his new show, “The Great Jungle Jam.” Lee was skeptical — he was used to bold, bright color schemes that grabbed kids’ attention and didn’t let go. But Britt said they could bring the color by projecting lights onto the backdrops. And Lee thought, “Bring the color.”

“That’s what the show is all about,” says Lee, whose performances have earned him comparisons to Fred Rogers. “Not the color of your skin or clothing or eyes, but what’s great about you. Whether it’s your smile or the way you write people kind notes or care for your neighbor or help a friend. Everybody has something. I want to teach kids that the world is not black and white.”

Lee’s experiences of bouncing back from his accident inform the show — not just the love he received from his fans, but also the discrimination and unkindness that blindsided him, like being called a “cripple.” It’s all been a piece of his journey, he says, and has only strengthened his resolve to make a difference.

“I just think it’s about time for people to stand up and wake up and open up,” he says.

Lee pauses — and in that moment, finds the exact right phrase.

“And get up — there’s my word.” He smiles. “Get up and make a difference in the world.”